Moving to Paris for Grad School

Vanessa Larson took more than a leap when she sprung for the chance to complete her MBA in Paris.

Showing up with just two suitcases and little to no comprehension of the French language, she persevered, calling this timeless capital city her home for a full 18 months before heading back to San Francisco.

Why Paris? What was it about this European city that lured you in?

Vanessa: I fell in love with Paris when I was 14 years old. I travelled there with my mom and it was the first place I went outside of the US. Over the next 18 years, I travelled there many times both for work and pleasure. It was the one place I kept coming back to, that I never got sick of. I love the food and the wine. I love that walking around Paris is like being a museum – you are surrounded by beauty. The language is beautiful even when you don’t understand everything. Also, the people! French people have opinions and are not afraid of stating them. They don’t always feel the need to be seen as ‘nice’ and I appreciate this boldness and passion! And then there was the fashion. Just walking around Paris is inspiring, full of understated elegance and classic, but cool looks.

Moving to another state can be stressful, let alone moving to another country! How did you move your stuff?

Vanessa: In my case, I decided not to move my stuff with me. I put the things I cared about into storage and I sold the rest of my belongings. I arrived in Paris with two suitcases and a studio that I booked for the first month through Airbnb. I rented a furnished flat after that and bought a few items to make it feel more like home.

How well did you speak the language before you got there? And how are you now, in comparison? 

Vanessa: When I arrived I did not speak any French. I’m not going to lie – it was hard. It took me 6 months to even understand anything! I would order a coffee in French but would not understand the response. It made communicating hard. By the time I left, I was able to navigate through normal day-to-day conversations. I could understand most of what I heard. I am still taking classes and I hope to one day be able to say that I speak French well.

Hands down - what was your favorite Parisian meal?

Vanessa: This might be the toughest question on the list! I will have to go with a baguette from my favorite boulangerie, some stinky French cheese and a bottle of sancerre. For dessert, a pear and dark chocolate tart from the patisserie. I could pretty much live on this meal and never be sick of it. So simple but so good!

Did you make any friends?

Vanessa: Yes, I had a great group of friends. Very international! Of course I made friends with French people, but also Lebanese, Italian, Indian, Israeli, Moroccan, etc. I met most of my friends through activities. I met people at school, through a design workshop I took, through friends, and at the office I worked at. I think that going out and signing up for activities that interest you is the easiest way to make friends in a new place.

Describe Paris in 3 words. 

Vanessa: Beautiful. Elegant. Magical.

What were the hardest things to get used to, culturally? 

Vanessa: The bureaucracy! Everything takes time and you learn to be very patient. It took me 3 months to open a bank account. When I needed to get my resident card, I had to go to the precinct three times because each time I came at my appointed time, I was told it wasn't ready and to come back. The systems can feel very antiquated and you are frequently told that the reason something is done a certain way is simply because that’s how it has always been done. You have to learn to laugh at the ridiculousness or you will make yourself crazy.

You've experienced Paris through all the seasons. What is your favorite time of year there?

Vanessa: I love the spring. Winter can be cold and wet but spring comes fairly early to Paris. There are parks everywhere and the flowers start to bloom. People sit outside at the cafes even if it is still a bit cool. It feels like the whole city is outside and there is this energy and happiness that is infectious. You want to be outside celebrating life.

What prompted you to leave? Was it by choice? 

Vanessa: I finished my MBA and realized that professionally, what I really wanted to do was start my own company. I had spent years building other people's brands and I now wanted to build my own brand. This is not something I could do in Paris. The language barrier, my lack of professional connections in Paris, and the fact that France is not as entrepreneurial-friendly as the US led me to decide to move back to San Francisco.

I created a Kickstarter campaign in June to raise the funds to launch my own business and I moved back. I now own and run Saffron + Kumquats, a foodie subscription box for cooking. I miss Paris but I love what I am doing. I also love San Francisco and feel lucky to have lived in such great cities.

What are 3 things you miss the most about Paris, now that you're back in the states?

Vanessa: The bread. My friends. Wandering the city.

Can you share a few resources that could help someone that is planning a move to France?

Vanessa:

Alliance Francaise offers intensive language courses. They also have branches all over the world so it makes it easy to start and continue classes.

Haven in Paris has upscale apartments for rent and a good blog with Paris recommendations.

Pap.fr is where long-term apartment rentals are posted. Sort of a French Craigslist.

Do it in Paris offers lots of recommendations for restaurants, shopping, events and more. A great resource for finding out about new places.

David Lebovitz is an American pastry chef living in Paris. He offers a glimpse into the expat experience, alongside great reviews of restaurants and gourmet shops.

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